The unfortunate reality of turning the fight against the Islamic State into an effort to address the threat of globalized terrorism, which must be a sustained campaign to degrade established and emerging terrorist organizations, is that terrorist groups tend to be a benefit to someone. In the case of the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front, the benefit goes to the very rebels the US and the West wish to use against the Islamic State. Consequently, dragging the Al-Nusra Front into Obama’s war on terrorism at this time was a poor strategic move.
Despite admissions by the Obama Administration that the US failed to address the rising threat of the Islamic State, America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did distract the United States from the broader threat of other terrorist groups beyond Al-Qaeda. The lengthy conflicts also exhausted the US military, which threatened America’s ability to respond to far more imminent threats while costing the US too much in terms of treasure and blood.
Above all, a major lesson learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts is that America does not have enough ground forces to fully eliminate a mobile insurgency or terrorist group, especially when collateral damage leads to increased support for anti-American terrorist groups. As such, putting US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria to deal with the Islamic State is not going to work and should not be tried. Only local populations with outside support can secure their territories without creating crippling backlash.
There is, of course, also the far more pressing and far more challenging issue of the Ukraine Crisis, which means the US has to reserve its strength to deal with Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior, particularly if the US is going to reengage Russia diplomatically. Sacrificing America’s ability to address a threat from Russia or China, as well as lesser threats from rogue states like North Korea and Iran, for the Islamic State or any other terrorist group would be terribly short-sighted and endanger America’s broader security interests.
Furthermore, the Al-Nusra Front cannot be allowed to expand its organization and the blanket threat to Western interests provides a rationale for the US to bomb the Al-Nusra Front in Syria. There is, however, a bad habit of legal-minded political leaders, e.g. President Obama, waiting to act until they can establish a legal rationale in order to legitimize their actions, even if that rationale is nonsensical.
Quite frankly, spending too much effort trying to find a legal rational for taking action against hostile entities like the Assad regime can lead to strategic mistakes as well as long-term problems. Conversely, going after a group like the Al-Nusra Front, because a legitimate reason exists for doing so during a time when a military response is appropriate, does not mean the US should.
With that in mind, the Al-Nusra Front is now an active threat to the US and coalition forces, so it must be treated as a threat. Because taking action against the Al-Nusra Front increases the threat against the Western-friendly Free Syrian Army from the Assad regime, it is imperative for coalition forces to compensate for that new reality.
If the Free Syrian Army is truly a Western and Arab League ally in this war on terrorism, it must be treated as such. In accordance, the Syrian Free Syrian Army must be protected from the Assad regime’s forces and any further attacks on the coalition ally must result in action taken against the Assad regime.
At the very least, such a policy will force the Assad regime to reconsider its civil war while it could lead to a forced ceasefire. Clearly, it would also provide the justification for coalition forces to create a “no-fly” zone over rebel held territory and to engage in strategic strikes against Assad forces that are imminent threats to coalition forces.
As for Russia framing such a policy as hypocritical, the coalition forces are simply giving Assad an end to a deeply entrenched civil war. In regards to fears of the Islamic State, Al-Nusra, and the Assad regime joining forces, if it was going to happen, it would have eventually happened anyways.
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